As a white male, why did you write a book about an African American girl?
Wow, straight to the point. Okay, I set out to write a book about friendship before anything else. Before race, injustice, modern journalism or even just a girl struggling to find herself. But yes, Nita is black, and I get why some people might take issue with me writing her story. I’m all for the #ownvoices movement, and at the same time, Nita is who she is. This is her story.
Now, let’s take a look at the alternative. What if I’d changed Nita (it was suggested more than once)? What if she was white? First, I feel like that would be whitewashing my character. Not only that, think about it. White Nita befriends Mr. Melvin and suddenly the book becomes the same old tired white savior narrative we’ve seen so many times before. No thanks. Nita is caring, compassionate, intelligent, stubborn, quirky, flawed, spunky, and one heck of a journalist.
She also happens to be black.
Okay, so Nita is African-American. She’s an accomplished, inquisitive investigative journalist. Then why is she so shocked to discover such injustices happened in the south fifty years ago?
I thought these were going to be easy questions. No but seriously, this is probably the most frequent of frequently asked questions. Here’s my answer. Knowing an atrocity happened to a large group of people is one thing (like say, the Holocaust). Hearing a firsthand account that happened to an individual (say, Anne Frank), one you’ve grown to like and trust and consider a friend, is much more powerful. It’s more intimate. It hits harder.
Yes, Nita has studied the Civil Rights movement. She’s aware of the terrors of slavery, Jim Crow, its everlasting legacy. But as she sits with her neighbor, her friend, hearing him wheeze and feeling the pain in his voice as he describes firsthand how a scratchy noose cut his breaths as it was tightened on his neck and recounts the wild look in the detective’s eyes as he spoke of an electric chair, well, that’s something one can’t get from a textbook. That’s my take on it, anyway.
A lot of the book feels like it takes place in the 1960’s. Is that by design?
Yes and no. When Nita enters Mr. Melvin’s apartment, I wanted it to feel like stepping back in time. Like he’d been hiding in there, almost paused in time. And so when Nita was there, she was back in time too. And then, almost organically, as I wrote Nita she was sort of an old soul, so there’s that.
The title, JUSTICE IN A BOTTLE, what’s that all about?
A few things. First, it’s the title of Nita’s essay. She felt Mr. Melvin was bottled up in the justice system, how his memoirs were like a message never seen or read until they reached Nita. Also, when Nita is interviewing the DA’s son about his father’s role in convicting Mr. Melvin, he states his father came home after the verdict and pulled a bottle off the shelf. That he knew Mr. Melvin did not get the justice he deserved.
Was there really a traveling electric chair?
Unfortunately, yes. When I was writing this book, I came across a podcast on Radio Diaries, telling the story of Willie McGee who was falsely accused of raping a white woman. The similarities were so similar, I had to put the traveling electric chair in the text. From the Radio Diaries site:
“In 1945, Willie McGee was accused of raping a white woman. The all-white jury took less than three minutes to find him guilty and McGee was sentenced to death. Over the next six years, the case went through three trials and sparked international protests and appeals from Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker. McGee was defended by a young Bella Abzug arguing her first major case. But in 1951, McGee was put to death in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair. His execution was broadcast live by a local radio station. Today, a newly discovered recording of that broadcast provides a chilling window into a lost episode of civil rights history. Narrated by Bridgette McGee, this documentary follows a granddaughter’s search for the truth about a case that has been called a real-life To Kill A Mockingbird.”
You can hear it here:
Who plays Mr. Earl Melvin in the movie?
That’s easy. Mr. Samuel L. Jackson.
Where did the idea for Mr. Hack come from?
Hang on, what’s that? Oh, yeah, I have to answer this question. Yes, it’s about you, geez.
Sorry, I was talking to a voice in my head. But seriously, I think we all have an inner critic, and it was fun to have this voice in her head, making bad decisions, throwing Nita off her game. Reading reviews, it was hit or miss. Some people liked it, some not so much, while other people just didn’t get it. What can I say, Nita is weird. I think she’s wonderfully weird.
How long did it take to write Justice in a Bottle?
All together? Maybe four years. In the early drafts, Nita was a gifted student with a chance to go to a gifted school. Mr. Melvin was just an old man who’d been rumored to have burned down the library. It was called Earl Melvin the Magnificent liar. It was all written in first person. And it was a mess.
It sat for a year. Then I tinkered. Third person gave me some distance, which, in this case worked better. I made Nita not so perfect, a struggling journalist. All the attacks on modern journalist played a part, but I wanted Nita to struggle, to fight for what she wanted. But what never changed was the friendship, what I consider the backbone of the book.
Are you done with Nita’s story, or is there more in the works?
I’m probably done. Although she would make an excellent YA character. Hmm, maybe I’m not so done. We’ll see.
Justice In a Bottle by Pete Fanning Available March 3, 2020